News Network NPR recently started a new series of articles, focussed on the greatest teachers who have ever lived. they decided to start their countdown from fifty to zero with Socrates, classical Athenian philosopher. You can visit the article here, or listen to the accompanying radio item here.

[LA Johnson/NPR]

The article calls Socrates the 'superstar teacher of the ancient world'. His ideas helped form the foundation of Western philosophy and the scientific method of inquiry. And his question-and-dialogue-based teaching style lives on in many classrooms as the Socratic method. At the heart of that method is the expectation that students question the teacher and each other--dialogue-based critical inquiry. The goal here is to focus on the text, ideas and facts--not just opinions--and to dig deeper through discussion.

Maryann Wolfe, a teacher at Oakland Technical High School who helped build this school's Socratic seminar program, which is part of a national Paideia program that encourages the Socratic method, explains the importance of the Socratic method:

"I think the Socratic method means that you're going to have a whole bunch of ideas floating to the surface. I want them to see the complexity of the issues. I believe the students really learn that way. Because they have to speak, they have to be engaged in what we're trying to learn. Maybe we won't find exact truths in this class, but we will at least look at all possibilities, and they will have a truth right at that moment. And the moment comes when they have to stand up and debate it, when they have to write an essay about it. They have to take a side."

Tim Ogburn, a seventh grade teacher, applies the Socratic method in his class as well:

"The Socratic method forces us to take a step back from that and ask questions like: What's going on here? What does this possibly mean? What's important? What's less important? What might be motivating this person to say this?"

The Socratic method implies to students that the teacher doesn't have the one true answer; the class constructs knowledge together. This teaches students to listen to one another and learn from one another and celebrate mistakes. It teaches them to think critically and to stand up for their own viewpoint--and to let it go when presented with evidence to the contrary. In the end, Socrates taught his students to be their own teachers, and in my opinion, that makes him one of the greats, indeed.